31 Dec 2017
I woke up on the side of the road next to a set of train tracks. A steady rain started sometime in the night, and everything in the van felt wet, and my feet itched uncontrollably from the sand fly bites. My plan to drive over Arthur Pass and ride in the Cragieburns was dismissed about 5 seconds after regaining consciousness. There comes a point in the dirt-bag lifestyle when it stops being fun, and you realize that literally everything that you have to do for yourself involves far more effort than living in a house. Just staying reasonably clean with baby wipes, and a pot of warm water is pretty miserable when it is raining in your bathroom, the sand flies are biting, and the ground is too hard to dig a hole to poop in. In a house we have an entire room dedicated to cleaning ourselves, with everything laid out ready to go, temperate water at our instant demand, a complete absence of sand flies, and a miracle device that magically takes the poop away. I could tell it was time for a hotel stay.
I drove back to Greymouth looking for a café with internet access so that I could look into the hotel options. I have come to realize that Cafés are like breakfast/lunch/coffee places with bathrooms, and fairly dependable wireless internet. Cafés typically open around 9am and close around 5, when the Bar/Restaurants open and serve drinks and dinner. I had about 30 minutes to kill and was driving around in the rain and suddenly, like a beacon on a stormy sea, there it was… the golden arches. They call it “Macca’s” here and I was immediately consumed by an irrepressible urge to eat something that was not exotic, new, or weird in the way that carrots and beets are on a hamburger. Traveling is a wonderful opportunity to explore new tastes, textures, and flavors, but when you add anything to a hamburger patty that is not in the cow family, it is no longer a hamburger, it is meat loaf, and meat loaf is fucking disgusting. I was at the point in this trip where I just wanted to eat something that was what I expected it to be. Those were the best sausage mac-muffin with egg sandwiches I have ever tasted, expressly because they were exactly what I expected them to be, standard issue McDonalds, no surprises and no beets.
While on the subject of weird culinary things, the coffee here is weird. I know that most countries that are in the commonwealth and descend from the Brit’s have a fondness for tea over coffee, but that isn’t the case here as there are cafés nearly every block. The strange thing is that they don’t drink brewed coffee, everything starts as an espresso. The closest I can get to a basic cup of Joe is called a flat white, and it’s basically a latte, all frothy and fancy with fern leaves drawn into the cream on the top. The first place I went into and ordered a large brewed coffee, they looked at me like I was from Mars. Again, the recipe really isn’t complicated: hot water over coffee grounds, and I know they have both of these ingredients. I have this crazy urge to just get behind the bar and show them how it’s done.
I stayed in Fox Glacier Township at a beautiful hotel room completely devoid of sand flies, the view would have been superb if it wasn’t raining, cloudy, and grim. It was a great decision. The next day dawned clear and I got up before the sun to revisit Matheson Lake, where I remember there being incredible reflections of the Southern Alps first in the morning. I guess it isn’t surprising that things change over 30 years, but when I was here in ’87 it was a dirt road to a pullout and some informal trails around the lake. Now a visitor center, gift shop, and café (The Reflection) ringed a huge parking lot that lead to graveled trails and a system of decks around the lake. It would be easy to go all Edward Abbey at this point, and complain that everything is being dumbed down and homogenized for the masses, but in truth if people are going to come, trails need to facilitate the foot traffic, parking lots need to be built, and limits need to be created to keep idiots at bay. I hope they sell a million flat white coffees and someone gets to retire early.
It is a testament to the ruggedness of the terrain on the southwestern side of the island that they were not able to completely finish a road through it until 1965. Between the mountain chain and the Tasman Sea are waves of lesser peaks that are basically forested cliffs, made of silt, mud and clay. Without the vegetation to hold it together it would all have melted along time ago and be a flat tidal plane. There is one small town in about 100 miles and nothing else other than the strip of roadway, and complete wildness. At the crest of the pass the road begins a series of downward spirals and suddenly tangled moss-covered forest gives way to grassland, and eventually to the deep blue of Lake Wanaka.
I found a holiday campsite at the outlet of the lake that sat right between the 2 mountain bike trails that Wanaka had to offer, got situated and went out for an afternoon ride on Deans Bank. This trail follows the bank of the Chutha which is the outlet river of the lake, and ridiculously emerald blue. The trail climbed up a hillside, then followed along the top of a hill along the riverbank which provided beautiful views of the river, lake, and mountains, then made a nice loop through some pine forest, before heading back via groomed single track with some nicely bermed turns and a few jumps that seemed reasonable enough not to end up in the hospital. This was a unique trail for here in that it was not a mountain bike park ride with constant features and short trails, but much more than the typical cross-country riding with no flow, few features but exceptional views. It was much closer to the type of rides that we have at home in that it was both a mountain bike ride, while riding a mountain bike… Stuki springs in an alpine setting.
The other ride here is called The Sticky Forest, which wasn’t very sticky; more of a rutted, dusty, rooty forest with very short, compact, and densely interwoven trails. I am coming to realize that the mountain bike park thing is more of biking version of Chuckawalla wall where you can go out for a couple hours and get in some riding and develop your skill set, while a ride like Deans Bank is more of a long day of climbing in a more remote and beautiful location, but you are still climbing close to your limit. I have also figured out that like Chuckawalla, when the variations and off shoots, and combinations on these trails reach a certain level, that I become disgusted and just want out.
For me, the biking in Wanaka took a backseat to the scenery, weather, and the complete lack of insects, biting or otherwise. I realized once I arrived that for the first time in a week I had a sense of relaxation and leisure that had been absent over the previous week. I could sit in the sun, relax, and walk along the lakeside without constant waving and slapping. It was possible to sleep with the windows open in the van, which would have left me with zero bodily fluids in the western part of the island. Hopefully Queenstown will offer a similar environment but with more biking options.
Some days you’re the bug.
Fio has a euphemism that goes: “Some days you’re the bug… some days you’re the windshield.” He has stopped saying it around me because I heard it one too many times when I was in the middle of being frustrated and I probably threatened him with physical violence. But he is right, some days you are going to smash everything that comes in front of you, and other days you are that thing to be smashed, and when you are on a trip that lasts months it is unreasonable to expect every day to be more perfect than the day before. Sometimes you need a reset day.
After a couple of uninspiring days of riding, I started the Mt. Rosa trail with a lot of energy and high expectations of myself. Literally 3 minutes after clipping in, I was pushing the bike uphill, and I actually needed to stop and rest from pushing several times, if that is any indication of how relentlessly steep this thing was. You know that it is steep when your triceps get tired before your thighs or calves. There actually came a point where I just put the bike over my shoulder to give my arms a break. After at least a mile of type two fun, it relented to the point where I could just barely crawl along in granny gear. As I huffed my way up what was an expected 4 mile uphill I came to a fork, and my lactic addled brain just assumed that the less steep path was the correct one, after all I was supposed to come to a saddle and I could see one in the distance. Another mile of alternate riding and pushing I arrived at the saddle, only to discover that I had taken the wrong turn and it was literally nothing but cliffs (up and down) every direction but the one I came by. Marlene would be very happy to discover that not only did I go in the wrong direction, but that I now had no fuel in the tank to rectify my mistake. Fortunately, after 2 hours of uphill riding/pushing, it was only 10 minutes back to the van. Sometimes you’re the bug.
Jan 4th to 9th Queenstown
Take Jackson Hole, and combine it with Springdale on their busiest weekends and you have downtown Queenstown. Yet instead of the focus being hiking national parks, make that focus adrenalin fueled adventure activities, like bungee jumping, canyoning, king swings, skydiving, parasailing, paragliding, Heli-skiing, Heli-biking, (probably Heli-hiking) and jet boating up crazy rapids for the least fit. Queenstown seems to promote itself as the place where a shot of adrenalin is added to every latte and croissant, and you could not swing a cat without smacking at least a dozen nose rings. While I am at least in theory a member of this “tribe” I can’t help but find this level of promotion a bit over the top, and to see it all so concentrated in one place and displayed in all its overly vivid hyperbole is a bit…overwhelming, embarrassing, and nauseating, or at least without any sense of higher purpose beyond just the thrill that may be involved. I know that for many of our guests, this is what they expect when they book a program with us, but I fervently hope that at the end of the day, each of them get something more substantial out of their experience than just a temporary rush of adrenalin.
I started working hard to find the better aspects of being in Queenstown, and really trying not to be disappointed. But it turned out to be really difficult to find good flowy fun trails that didn’t require a shuttle, gondola, helicopter or the willingness to bike up a thousand feet of asphalt. One of the early rides was up a trail called “gold digger” which was really good as an uphill and probably would have been awesome as a downhill, but getting to it, to ride in that direction would have been 3 miles of steep pavement and… well, fortunately I didn’t get that desperate. The rest of that ride was a lot of steep pavement, a bunch of gravel road, some bike path stuff around Moke lake, and then fence line sheep pasture which eventually lead to another lake and finally about a mile of pretty good flowy twisty single track. This actually turned out to be the theme of the riding that did not require a separate conveyance to access, I assume this is attributed to the downhill focus of the riding here.
I had done a fair amount of research on the helicopter serviced mountain biking here, but like everything else on the internet you have to read between the lines to get a focused picture. The videos show riders coming down single track trails that weave between the tussock grass down ridges with steep slopes on either side and carving turns through alpine meadows. While these things do in fact exist on the Heli-bike rides, they are in fact incredibly brief snapshots of select portions of the ride, and by far the majority of the rest of it are long straight fast descents on double track 4wd roads, through pastures, or just across the moon-scaped tops of mountains across tilted fields of rocks and moss. I think that since it is so costly and unique that we want to imagine that it was the experience of a lifetime, but if you did that kind of a ride without a helicopter you would clean the sheep shit off of your bike and swear to never do it again. It was a cool experience and as I think about it in hindsight it is crazy to expect people to be up that high with picks, rakes, and shovels making (and maintaining) flowy single-track. That just isn’t the world we live in.
In the US most of the pure downhill stuff is summer lift serviced riding at the larger ski resorts. Only there can they charge mountain bikers enough to pay for both the infrastructure, trail work, and maintenance that highly featured and crafted trails necessitate. Having ridden the lifts at Park City last summer, I decided to see how it was done in the Southern Hemisphere and drove the hour to Cadrona mountain resort, paid the $89 for the day pass and then put on nearly every piece of clothing that I brought with me to stand the 48-degree temp and 20 mph of wind.
The trails were typically steep, twisty, and flowy, and also pretty long when you descended to the lower of the 2 operating lifts. It was even possible to continue down past the lowest lift about a third of the way to the bottom and then catch the van shuttle back to the base lodge which made for 15-minute descents that at least warmed me up with the deep burning in my thighs, and forearms. It made for a fun change of pace from the short glimpses of flow amidst miles of drudgery that I was finding elsewhere in town, but in the end, it was just too cold and windy to stay more than a few hours.
It would be difficult to talk for very long about the mountain biking in Queenstown without the subject of Rude Rock trail entering the conversation. To be fair it is an iconic part of the mountain biking in New Zealand, and probably appears in more advertising and promotional material that any single other trail, to say nothing of the number of YouTube videos. So, for my last day in town I made an appointment with Queenstown bike Shuttles for a Rude Rock session.
When I emailed them about the location of the meeting point, the reply I received was “between the primary school and the fire station”. Coming from 8000 miles away, I was hoping for something with a bit more specificity, or at least a link to google maps, but after a brief stop into the Bike-a-holic shop I found it, and we started up the long, paved road to the top of Cornet peak ski area.
The trail is in fact awesome, and when it is in good condition I doubt that there is a better 1.8 miles of riding on the entire South Island. I had 4 companions on the shuttle and we rode it a total of 4 times, each of which got better and better, so that by the end I actually had the bandwidth to look around a bit at what an amazing piece of the planet we were rolling across. But with fast descents and speedy turnarounds we also had time for 4 descents of another shorter trail called Zoot, and then best of all a final ride down Rude Rock with a turn off down what is called the Pack and sack trail.
As a mountain biker who spends about 99% of the time riding alone, I am pretty cautious and try not to push my limits in remote areas. The Pack and Sack trail was rated an expert trail (black diamond) and I have yet to be confident enough to define myself in those terms, so it was with a bit of trepidation that I brought up the rear as we started to descend the Pack and Sack. Five miles of stunning scenery, disconcerting exposure, and narrow twisty single track, lead us along a slope and eventually down to the bottom of a canyon with cliffs and distant ranges at every turn. It was jaw-dropping for the entire ride, and I would be happy to call it the best single ride in Queenstown, and impossible without hiring a shuttle to make it possible.
I have been making it a point to ask everyone who seems to know anything about the biking here for their recommendations, and so far, I seem to get nothing but mumbling and shrugs about the riding further south of here, so I am going to start heading north and east up the coast, still looking for flow.
Link to Todd’s awesome photos: